At Junoon, authentic Indian cuisine with elegant modern style is always on the Michelin-starred menu and with the help of the executive chef’s mom, one of her homemade desserts has a permanent place as well.
Chef Akshay Bhardwaj and his mother Nina Bhardwaj — or “executive mother of the restaurant” as he refers to her — told “Good Morning America” about how their rice pudding has evolved from a homemade staple beloved by friends and family to a restaurant staff and customer favorite.
“We came to this country in 1990 and I didn’t know much about cooking, but I had seen my grandmother, my mother and my mother-in-law make it so I had it in my head,” Nina Bhardwaj said. “The products over here are different than the product available in India, so I just … came up with this recipe. … Everybody liked it and then Akshay, his friends and the staff at Junoon also liked it, so that’s how it all started.”
Akshay Bhardwaj recalled that his mom “cooked every day, seven days a week” while his father owned and operated restaurants. “Restaurants and food have always been in our lives,” he said.
“My friends would come over — we play, watch some football on Sundays, and my mother would cook some food for myself and my older brother, as you would always offer my friends,” the chef said. “They started off by just trying a little bit of the bread. The bread then turned into, ‘OK, we’ll try a little bit more.’ By the sixth grade and seventh grade, all the way through high school, they would plan their Sundays around coming over to my house watching the football game and then having a meal prepared by my mother.”
At times, he added, the group of friends and dinner guests expanded to upward of 20 kids. “It was a massive event on Sundays and the rice pudding was definitely a part of it; she would always make that as the dessert,” he said.
Some 20 years later, during Akshay’s time as a line cook at Junoon in 2012, the rice pudding made another appearance, this time among his colleagues in the kitchen.
“My mom would sometimes send the rice pudding with me. She’d make a big tray of it, and she would send it on auspicious holidays like Diwali or Christmas, and the first time I ever put the rice pudding out for the staff in a tray — the first three or four people came, they tried it, and then they packed it in big quart-[size] containers so only like three out of 80 staff actually got to eat it,” he said. “Following that I had to always hand it out to the staff. I would stand there after dinner service, and I would pour it in a little copper and hand it to everybody. … And so that was kind of the tradition.”
When Akshay took over as head chef in 2017, he and pastry chef Gustavo Tzoc, who tried the rice pudding previously, talked about the future of the dessert menu.
“Jokingly he said, ‘Why don’t we get your mom to come and make the rice pudding?’ I said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it,'” Akshay said.
“I was kind of surprised because I never expected that I would be making it for the restaurant,” his mother said. “I felt good that [they] wanted me to do it.”
The only learning curve for the six-hour cooking process was working with bigger batches made in a professional restaurant with pots five times larger than the at-home version.
“So she leaves and then my cooks actually fight over who’s gonna batch it up, because they know that we’re going to get to scrape the bottom and kind of put a little bit to the side for ourselves,” Akshay explained. “You will never see in a restaurant cooks fighting to consolidate and to package things — but when it comes to the rice pudding there is literally like a waitlist.”
“We definitely had my mom try it with what we topped it with — candied almonds, pomegranate seeds, and bruleed bananas or figs. Once we got the blessing, we were OK with it,” he said.
Check out her full recipe to make a batch of her delicious dessert at home this Mother’s Day.
Ma’s rice pudding
Serves: 4 to 6
4 cups half and half
3 3/4 cups whole milk
3/5 cups Basmati rice
1 green cardamom seed (take cover of pod out)
3/5 cup sugar*
Put the milk and half and half in a heavy-bottomed pot on a very low flame and add the green cardamom seeds.
Wash the rice seven times in room temperature water and when the milk is warm, add the rice to it.
Let it cook on low flame stirring it from time to time so that it doesn’t stick to the bottom or get burnt.
Once it has reached a custard-like consistency — it will take approximately two to three hours — turn the gas off and add the sugar.
It can be eaten warm or cold.
*Note: You can add the sugar according to taste.
Garnish with pomegranate seeds, slivered almond, pistachio crumble and ground green cardamom.